5/17/20: A Fisherman

The first time I went fishing was with my dad, when I was young. It was a Saturday and he came into my room in the mid-morning to see if I wanted to go fishing with him.

My dad was not a fisherman. He liked to golf, and mow the lawn, and stand in the driveway calling loudly across the street to neighbors in their driveway. Later in his life he would get up at absurd morning hours to play blistering games of racquetball. He would come home, sometimes, with purple welts on his legs from the ball. He golfed. But he never went fishing.

I wasn’t interested in fishing either, but I understood what he was doing and agreed. I would’ve agreed to anything he asked, because whatever he asked was never like a question to me, but a mandate, a debtor come to call. Our obvious fundamental differences from one another gave him an oppressive authority over me, and I was too cowardly, undefined, and unassertive to question this authority in any outward-facing part of my personality.

We went to a big store and under its flat florescent lighting bought cheap poles and brightly-colored bait for the fishes. We couldn’t use worms because I was too squeamish to touch them at all, let alone press them, living, down and around a metal barb.

We went up to a nearby park and found out that we needed a permit to fish in the pond there, so we went and bought day permits and came back. We fished in a small pond adjacent to the large man-made lake and caught nothing. I watched the hordes of geese on the lawns. They came every summer and marched across the sidewalk, fouling up long stretches of it with green-white birdshit.

In the early days of middle school a friend invited me to his house. We looked different from one another. I was fat, with a bowl cut, ineradicably apple-cheeked. He was that rangy, skeletal kind of kid you always see in Mid-western suburbs, the kind of kid that always seems to always be wearing a white t-shirt. We bonded over a shared sense of humor. He would take pictures of his shits and show them to me on his phone. He used to peel scraps of vinyl off the front of his binders at school, and poke a bunch of holes in the scrap with a pen. Then he would take this perforated scrap of vinyl and play-scratch you with it. He called these things ‘rasps.’ We used to make “Monster Books” together; these were pieces of notebook paper with drawings of aberrant little creatures on them, in rows of three; nine creatures per side. We’d fold these up and pass them to each other between class.

It was a hot summer day when I went to his house. His house was a small nondescript ranch home with gray carpet and off-white walls inside. Outside, his back lawn sloped down to a lake, which many other backyards in the neighborhood also backed up against. We went down with poles he had in his garage and fished.

He caught one, a bluegill. He pulled it up out of the water, and it hung at the end of his line. It was spiny and glittered like some glaive-like weapon in a sci-fi novel that you flung bolo-like to cut through hundreds of enemies at once. I wouldn’t touch it because he told me the fins were sharp and could cut you. But he took it into his hand with the ease of much practice and threw it back into the lake.

When I was older and living in a different state, I went fishing with someone I didn’t know very well. He was from Iceland, and married, short and strong and stringy. I don’t remember where or how we met, but I remember being desperately attracted to his wife, the kind of attraction that is shameless in its despair. I was always hoping that some circumstance would leave us two alone together, without him around. One time they invited me over and we all got roaringly drunk. I sat on their porch in a folding lawn chair with her, and he was inside. She and I were smoking Camel Crushes. For some reason I was fixated on articulating some idea I had about King Lear to her.

He couldn’t work in the U.S. and she was a student, so he stayed home with their son during the day. He thought of me as his bachelor buddy, a sort of one-man escape from this domestic life. His presiding obsession was fly fishing, and he insisted I come with him one hot day.

We went first to a lake he had found out about online. When we got there, we found that the lake had dried up in the withering summer to a small pool in the center of the dry, cracked expanse of the lake bed.

To his eye it still looked fishable, so we decided to walk out to the little, since we were here already. When we got about of a third of the way across the lake bed, the ground beneath our feet became spongy and wet; then suddenly we sank into the stinking, clayey bed up to our waists.

We tried to go back. We had to scoop slopping handfuls of muck out from in front of us so we could lift our legs high enough to step forward. Each time we put our feet down they plunged with a sucking sound back into lukewarm sludge. We struggled like that back to firmer ground; our jeans and shoes were a uniform off-white color once we pushed off the outer layers of filth.

We went to a second lake. Here, my Icelandic friend insisted we do some tobacco chew, something he wasn’t allowed to do around his kid. It was the kind that comes in a little bag that you lodge up in your gums. I put one into my mouth. It tasted strong and the upper layers of my brain became pleasantly ruffled with a nicotine buzz. He had brought a pole for me but I kept getting my line caught on things. So instead I listened to my friend talk about the finer details of fly fishing as he whipped the line back and forth. I nodded and listened in the absurd heat, caked in lake mud, growing slowly nauseous.

5/16/20: Desire and Denial

Call it the Weekend of Anesthetization: spent yesterday night and all day today playing an eye-burning amount of games. I don’t feel bad about it. It felt (mostly) good to suspend other activities and just let the upper parts of my mind be engaged; maybe it will’ve let the lower-down regions decompress somewhat.

Doing this for long enough makes my brain feel flat, and makes it harder to engage in deeper activity – like reading. That’s a bit of a drag because I’m so close to finishing Anna Karenina; if I’d stuck to my schedule I’d be on track to finish it tomorrow. And also there’s this susceptibility to blanknesses, where if I don’t keep myself occupied with activities I blank into doing nothing: staring at the texture of the ceiling or vacantly searching the same terms and reading articles on my phone that I’ve looked up and  read 1000 times before.

I know (I mean I assume) it’s not in your power to give one person to another, but the fact is my wish was granted. Maybe only because I wanted it more than anything, and what you want so much you’re just likely to get.

That’s from Little, Big. Does the act of wanting move the percentage chances of things happening or not happening to us? Does it affect the cosmic math at all?

Part of OCD is developing an unhealthy metaphysics to mediate your relation to the world. So many of my bigger and littler fears revolve(d) around affecting things outside myself: causing people to get sick, for instance. That’s called harm induction. But also I was convinced that if I envisioned certain things for too long, certain things I wanted, I would never have them.

This rule applied to many things, but most intensely maybe to people. If I thought in certain ways about someone I wanted, I would never get them, so that when it came to people I was attracted to, I had two options: to rigorously, puritanically prevent myself from thinking about them in those certain ways, or to reconcile myself to never having them.

“In certain ways” doesn’t mean sexually specifically, but that was one way I wasn’t allowed to think about them. Imagining any sort of romantic connection with a person meant that I would be denied it.

OCD is also immune to anecdotal evidence.

When I came back from Northern Ireland you were the second friend I contacted, and I texted you the night I got back into Ohio. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it’s a fact that even though I’d been sealed away in actual terrestrial happiness for months, during that time I was, still, always thinking about you, just how in some way all my thought, even to this day is, still, in some way a dialogue with you.

Hey, was all I texted.

A few days later we hung out. We took a walk around the neighborhood. It was a mild, humid evening. The sky was full of mild clouds, turning a somnambulant lavender as the sun set. I still had the measured, distant affectation that I took with you when we met up before I left; that was my default attitude with you during that phase because I knew that something had shifted between us since the early high school days, but didn’t know to what degree it had shifted, and what that shift meant now, if anything; so I kept a guard up.

“Well, how was it?” you asked me, referring to Northern Ireland.

“It was…good,” I said; and let pass the chance to elaborate or expand.

“Was it big?”

“Yeah. It was.”

The next day, I was standing outside with my dog. It was a sunny day; in a rare thing for Ohio summer, the humidity went away without being dispelled by a heavy storm; the day dawned with cleaner air, crisp and clear. I was standing in the devil’s strip and looking at the luxuriantly textured grass – one of my dad’s obsessions. And inevitably my thoughts moved towards you.

Weirdly, I let them. I didn’t stop the flow of desire that day, and I let myself imagine in detail what it would be like to be with you. Not even sexually, just what it would be like if we crossed that white quivering line between us, that was the history of my desire for you and yours for me, with all their attendant addenda, and came together in the bright center, into the new space of a relationship.

These thoughts might have been an act of cowardice; maybe I succumbed to some lodged shrapnel of doubt the convinced me it would never be, or let myself just give into the hopelessness rather continue to practice the exhausting mental vigilance it took to not think about you. Whatever the reason, I felt like I had broken the rule and that what our possibility was was forfeit.

But the thing is that we did end up dating. In fact it was that same night that we kissed for the first time, in the driveway, in the dark.

That should’ve been a refutation of this stricture. But there’s this infinitely protean element in OCD. It warps and alters when it’s contested. If something seems to prove its rules false, it retreats into alternate interpretation of that rule, or nudges it into a more specific situation so that this refutation doesn’t, in fact, fall under the rule and thus doesn’t disprove anything.

So now, instead of the rule being that thinking of somebody in certain ways locked them away from me forever, it became that thinking of somebody in those ways only ensured that, eventually, things would end badly between us.

But I didn’t think about that then or, actually, for several years. The thought only recurred to me after it had ended badly between us, and I was living separate from you in Boulder, dreading every day that I would see your car on my long morning walk to work.

5/15/20: Thin Band of Beaten Lead

I woke up early today, like 7 am early, to go to the store when it would be less crowded; and thus splintered at least for a day my crooked pandemic sleep schedule. Couldn’t nap in the afternoon either – or not for very long, at least – and so there’s a thin band of beaten lead between my skull and my brain, and the back of my eyes feel like they have moss growing on them.

I went to the Giant Eagle in Streetsboro. All the staff wore masks, and most of the customers wore them too. But it seemed like there were more maskless people today than last time I was at the store, which made me worry that that the normalization process has begun to occur, that people are buying the asinine “Well Done” messaging from the media regarding this thing and starting to revert to way they used to live. Nothing is solved. Nothing is over. Nothing is defeated. But I get this sensation that this is the interpretation people are increasingly gravitating towards – maybe unconsciously.

Unconsciously, because the violence of the American metastructures have so conditioned us to react to any indication of normalcy from Trusted Sources (i.e. any entity endowed with Authority) with an immediate and programmatic return to the status quo.

There’s ongoing conversation about how things will be different because of the pandemic. The metastructures recycle this concept over and over again, both in grim and consolatory contexts. But that context is actually a ghost, it has no way of impacting or interacting with anything; what matters is that the idea of “returning” is gaining traction, and this is the only world lodging in peoples’ minds. It’s the high-sign, the activation word, slowly soaking into the collective unconscious and silently instigating a realignment, bringing things back to where they were before.

If this happens, there will be more deaths that could have been prevented; but the powers that be are hard at work removing the sting from the tail of death, so that people will accept it, as they’ve accepted a parade of atrocities since time immemorial. And tragic too is the very real possibility that America will learn nothing at all from this horror; that everything really will go on just as it was going on before COVID-19. Things will continue to move toward a final crystallization, where these apparatus of power and control that ruin us over and over again each time they touch us will be locked immovably into place and system will not be fixable to any degree in any sane amount of time.

It’s one of the manufacture privileges of the powerful to have an all-disclosing catalog of our weak spots, the better to press on them when they need to bring us to heel. One such weakness being leaned on right now is our undeniable hunger for the way things used to be. This yearning is an ongoing human condition; it was here before COVID, and will be here after (whatever ‘after’ looks like). But, before now, this yearning for the most part was personal: we yearned for something in our private past: somebody we used to love, some blue afternoon we were finally, simply happy. But with COVID we’re all plugged into the same wavelength of remorse, all living the same fantasy of Return. It’s a collective hunger now, manufactured outside of ourselves. This hunger, outside of ourselves and not susceptible to any internal laws we might have, is much harder to bear, and is indissoluble.

It’s the same thing with my OCD. Before COVID, it was always this grotesque architecture built around some fear that I developed and aggrandized internally: the weather, improbable cancers, family members dying of disease. But now it’s scaffolding around something Outside, a roaming threat in the real world; the main component of my fear is now a foreign element. So I can’t have the sometimes useful knowledge that it’s All in My Head.

Here’s how I might perceive our being in reality: We have our consciousness, which surrounds our soul. Consciousness is a permanent barrier between our soul and the outside world. The good part of life is finding ways to move through that barrier, so that the realest part of ourselves can touch the world we’re always otherwise just observing and it can touch us: making friends, falling in love, connecting with others, doing meaningful work.

When we fail to move our soul all the way out into the world, it occupies our consciousness. We put ourselves under the strain of that unblinking scrutiny. This scrutiny creates perceptions about ourselves: neuroses, fears.

When we fail to bring things from outside ourselves all the way in, they’re warped in the heavy atmosphere of our consciousness. They twist into all sorts of different, and differently false (but no less powerful for that), things. This is how we end up with acquaintances, or friends we don’t really trust, at some level don’t really love or understand. It’s how we think we’re in love with somebody, and let ourselves believe that for years, striving to protect something with no actual foundation in who we actually are.

Impressions of places, things, most simple memories of where we’ve been and what we’ve done: all of this, probably, resides in this consciousness-level of our being, which imbues them with easily exploitable qualities like nostalgia. That’s why we find it so easy to yearn – even in regular times – for things we hardly ever thought about before. Our consciousness is this weird magnifier: an artificer, a compulsive and maudlin fabricator.

(Though I say “we” throughout it’s only because I get sick of seeing “I, I, I, I, I” over and over again throughout an essay like this. You can choose whether to believe or disbelieve any element of this theory on your own. And it isn’t even a theory. It’s just a wavering idea, a draft of a draft of a draft, a slowly-unfogging conception, an infant.)

5/14/20: Notes to Nobody About Art: First Pass

I nearly woke up a dozen times this morning, each time almost breaking the surface of an intense overwebbing sleep. I was suspended in this effulgent dream state: all brightness, and feelings without names. But there was nothing transcendental about these feelings. The only sensation I was immediately aware of was of brightness, this sensation that my consciousness was distilled from my body into a sort of sensory nodule and immersed in a coruscating sea of light.

*****

Subjectivity vs. objectivity in art is one of the eternal questions.

By subjectivity I mean externally-received or internally-generated personal taste/inclination.

By objectivity I mean a universal standard of potent excellence, towards which all art moves, and by which all art can be evaluated and differentiated from simpler media.

By art I mean any creative act that becomes imbued with this objective standard: so it can writing, painting, music, theater, food, film, games, architecture. Other things.

There is an objective Good in art. It’s the crucial thing that separates it from all other human activity – or maybe connects it to the deepest, most resonant aspects of those other activities. What art does to you when you engage with it is as simple and irreducible and essential as what love does to you when you find it. It’s something you feel it with your soul’s every nerve; so when I said ‘evaluate’ above I meant that it’s possible to evaluate the degree to which a piece of art succeeds in creating and engaging with this feeling.

Without an objective component, art would be, in a very real way, useless; it would become media. The function that this objectively Good quality in art accomplishes is to bring us outside ourselves into something greater, or maybe up into a better part of ourselves. If the only pleasures to be had in art were subjective (that is, if it were media), the pleasure we get from it would be transient and shallow, and it would push us further and further into the smallest part of ourselves, because we’d be enjoying it only according to some internal criterion, and criteria like this form with direction or purpose.

Important to note: we can’t wholly control the inputs we receive and interiorize. Think of how profoundly parents, even loving parents, fuck up their children, how their actions insinuate into their kid’s personality and reverberate in it forever, through its whole life. I grew up with parents who didn’t ever acknowledge politics, I went to a school that shied away from engaging with them in any serious way; and so I didn’t even really think of them as a deeply important element of existence until I was much older, and already scarred in so many ways from my ignorance.

Or think about the way movies or books or stories from friends stick in your head, and fill you with preconceptions about places and things and people you’ve never seen.

And even internal subjective standards you cultivate yourself are often formed from the drawing together of disparate outside things, or made with incomplete information; and even if they can be changed over time there’s an element of them that is forever and intrusively out of your control.

The Objective Good is also out of your control, but entirely so, and unchanging, even if the ways in which it can be approached through art are infinite, just like we all try to find our own way to love, trusting that it will speak uniquely to us in its universal eternality.

I’ve said above: art without this objective Good is media: by which I mean a creation that engages only the surface level of your brain. Lots of books, paintings, music, plays, foods, movies, and games – the same things can also be art – fall into this category.

Media can be a good thing in someone’s life: can provide entertainment, distraction, comfort on certain levels of perception. It can help you shape and reinforce some aspects of your outward-presenting personality. It can just be fun, and fun is also good and important in life.

(I mean obviously art can be fun too, but still.)

At that heightened level of evaluation, though, media is worthless. It derives all its value from our subjective response to it. It doesn’t really ‘exist’ outside of our engagement with it. This is important to remember. A balanced mind wants both art and media.

I’ve thought about this question for years and years. It’s the kind of thing you and I used to talk about. You were the only person I wasn’t embarrassed to bring up my driving conviction about objective good with.

To refine the above thoughts into something pocketable, here are the four edicts I’m comfortable trying out with regards to art and objectivity within it:

  • Engaging with art is essential to life as love and light and food, all the corny things. To live without it is to live a compromised life.

 

  • There’s more good art in the world than you can possibly engage with in a lifetime.

 

  • It’s also okay and good to like bad art/media, but:

 

  • It’s overpoweringly important to be able to draw the line between these two things, and to keep the balance between the two correct.

5/13/20: Sense of Place

Earlier today I went for a walk, a long walk like I used to take before the pandemic. I walked around and around the nearby neighborhood, and at one point I stood at the top of Holborn Road. My dad lives on this road.

If I were to describe it to you, make it real for you, how would I do it? You’d have an idea of what it was like if I said it was a road like many others in suburban American neighborhoods. But would you have a better idea if I said it curved gently back and forth as it went down at a gentle incline, punctuated every so often with a cul-de-sac and, eventually, another road feeding into it, before reaching the bottom of its decline and turning broadly to the left, where it ran up another short rise before meeting with the neighborhood’s main road?

What if I spent pages describing everything about it? The texture of the road, of the sidewalks, the look of each individual house and its address, the make and models of different mailboxes, the types of trees that crowd up behind some of the houses at certain points, the cars parked in the driveways or on the curb, the way sound carries from one end to the other, the bushes in the front lawns, the dogs yelping at passersby in the back yards, the smell of the mulch in the summer, the lawns strewn with kids toys and Little Tikes vehicles, where you’d see the sun rise and where you’d lose it behind the cluttered horizon – all of this and more, and not in a list, but in an anatomy, a patient ordering of all this information across pages and pages – maybe in a separate part of the book, its own appendix to which you’d refer before beginning the section that takes place in Streetsboro –  would you know it better, then, going forward into whatever I had to tell about it?

And also how much do know about Holborn Road, or anywhere else? I walked through it just a couple hours ago and I can’t remember most of what I saw while I was there, and I don’t even have the plea of unfamiliarity to fall back on: I spent whole years of my life living there, seeing and seeing the street and its houses and people so many times.

In lots of literature, the sense of place is conveyed in ways less ordered and exhaustive, more oblique and “artistic.” When I took that class with Chip Delaney, he alluded to a suggestion from Theodore Sturgeon about writing building detail in a place, which (paraphrasing) was Only describe the things your characters would see and interact with in the course of whatever story you’re telling: the things their consciousness and needs actually come into contact with.

(I read a passage in Anna Karenina this week (I can’t find it now ), some lines of minor description detailing the appearance of a certain place on Levin’s farm. And whether the fault of Tolstoy, the translator/editors, or myself, it made no literal sense whatsoever; it was utterly functionless in situating me in the scene.)

Sometimes a sense of place is conveyed indirectly through characters. The logic here is that, if you believe that people are impacted by the place they live in, you can create an image of that place merely by faithfully depicting the characters that live within it. This is the approach John Kennedy Toole takes in A Confederacy of Dunces, which has this reputation as the New Orleans novel. I’ve read that book five times, and I’m always surprised at how little description of the city there actually is in it. The only place I remember as being vividly conventionally described is the Reilly house on Constantinople Street. And when I went to New Orleans a couple years ago there was no reverberation of pre-familiarity from having read and loved that book, although I do feel like I understood in some degree ineffable qualities about it.

(And also in that case there’s the long desert of years between New Orleans today and then to consider, the impact of modernity and commercialization and disaster. I wasn’t able to make it out to Constantinople Street itself.)

And what about the shallow things we bring to a book? Is Dublin well realized in Ulysses, or is it mostly a function of a two-dimensional conception of Ireland/Dublin we carry in our head, a magpie’s grab of bits and fragments from all over, reinforced by the relatively scant scene-setting descriptions in the book itself, that creates this surety that no book has ever captured the city better before or after?

Even the Pequod in Moby-Dick, which encompasses a lot less square acreage than either Dublin or New Orleans, gets really only a single chapter describing what it looks like, ad is rarely brought up in any visual sense again after that. But Moby-Dick‘s obviously not a book concerned with realism in the immediate sense under examination here.

One of the keys to establishing a real sense of place might be repetition. Because places do repeat: they come up again and again for us as we return to them in daily routine; in the cases of enduring locations in our lives, we commit these repetitions for years. For literally corollary: there’s the what feels like dozens of times Patrick O’Brian describes the sounds of rigging whistling in the wind, or the sails of a ship tightening, bellying out; so that eventually you have this reflexive awareness of this imagery in your head, and populate scenes in which they’re not directly mentioned yourself, automatically, just as you populate your house with all the things that it contains without having to take direct inventory every time you walk in.

The question of creating a place is important, because to create reality as I know it is to invoke the concatenated correspondence between places and people; the impacts and violences they inflict on each other. And, on a petty level, because Ohio is my particular grudge, I want to pin it in place on the page forever, so that it’s particular petty ugliness – and, too, its random moments of beauty – won’t be forgotten.

5/12/20: Collage 2: Winter

Winter is the ugliest season here. It raises the inherent drabness and defeat up everywhere, like a necromancer conjuring spirits from cursed earth.

I have a piece sitting in the Drafts folder that is titled “Winter Hands.”

Last winter came so suddenly: falling like a curtain at the end of October. Not the worst winter we’ve had, but a bitter one, bitterly cold.

When it snows heavily, and you’re driving down the freeway at night, underneath the streetlamps’ orange toxicity the falling snow looks like dust, and the growing drifts look like mounds of dust. And look, in the runnels on the road where the heated turn of drivers’ tires have whipped the snow down to slush, grime gathers.

In the big parking lots at Wal-Mart they push the snow up into giant mounds around a distant light pole. The snow turns pockmarked and gray, and black at certain extremities.

At Sunny Lake the frozen lake is glaucomic. It looks blearily up at the eyeless sky. The trees are all dead, but sometimes their branches are sleeved in snow; sometimes it falls off onto the ground below, where its cold and damp will disintegrate the fallen leaves beneath into meal.

The sun is an absurd recluse. It peeks out from its high windows only occasionally, like a fretting hypochondriac.

There are cold snaps, and stretches of lancing frigidity where time itself seems frozen. Each day seems identical to the one before, and is only turned over laborously, like a page in a baleful grimoire.

The absurd rush of frustration that fills your heart when you slip on some unseen patch of ice; the absolute wordless fury of losing control, even in this minor way.

The winter nights: wicked, fickle, unpredictable. Temperatures can drop 20 degrees in a couple hours, turning a chilly rain into an all-enveloping ice storm, a wet white fury that covers every inch and seam of your car and everything else exposed in a sheath of knubbled ice, so that you have to hack away at it with the scraper side of your snowbrush just to get inside and start the engine, which chokes and splutters, stunned, before turning over.

If you have to park outside sometimes your car’s battery will die silently in the middle of the night, drained from the cold.

If the sun does come out, the places where the snow is left undisturbed sparkle like they’ve been strewn with jewels. When shadows fall on sunbrightened snow they turn blue.

Harsh cold that runs inside your coat and reaches through your skin to find your bones, and lingers like remorse; you sit on your one hand as you’re driving, shivering. It takes as much time to warm up as it does to get where you’re going, so that every small jaunt is an inhospitable journey.

The puddles of water that gather around your shoes inside, where the rind of snow melts off them. The mat in front of the door is soaked through the whole season and wheezes like a sponge when you step on it.

The strange spates of mild weather that break up one gauntlet of frigidity from another. Then, the snow melts away. Underneath the dead and matted grass the ground is soft, and muddy and sucking where it’s lower down and the moisture can collect.

The particular texture of natural light inside the house on a cloudy winter day. The heaviness of it, the shadows up in the corners of the room like cobwebs.

Heavy clouds, their outlines bleached away by some untraceable winter light; the sky one massive welded sheet of base metal.

The heckling sub-sonic sensation when a strong wind drives the snow at you vertically, making you blink over and over again.

Muttered imprecations against the ugliness of the weather, this town, this misbegotten state.

Looking through the window at night to see if it’s snowing: checking to see if the falling flecks can be seen in the glow of the side lights of the house across the road.

A bundled stranger laboring over his widemouthed gawping shovel, breathing wetly into a balaclava, pushing the snow down off his driveway; the scraping sound of the shovel lip glancing occasionally off the driveway cement where it makes it through the snow.

Early winter evening, where everything seems submerged, aquatic; the trees waver, glistening wet-black like fronds of seaweed. You have an acute awareness of the separateness of each sound from every other sound, and of an icebound duty in each thing to stand separate from all other things; an all-pervading disbelief in harmony.

Routine thrives, the particular routine that comes from deciding not to do things, to remain as inert as possible.

Gray the only color everywhere you look, each vista cluttered with a thousand shades of gray, stacked on top of one another: gray road, gray houses, gray trees, gray sky, gray snow threading down in monotone.

Wet cuffs of jeans, wet socks.

This absurd commitment to matching the ‘feel’ of what you’re reading to the feel of the season.

Parents with their kids on the steep short hill at Sunny Lake, walking laboriously up the staircase to the top, a round plastic sled in one hand, their child’s hand in the other.

Near the base of the hill is a fire pit. It goes mostly unused in the summer. In the winter the interior is dark and wet and glistening like the throat of a well.

5/11/20: Insomnia

When I was a kid and imagined how I would be as an adult, I always pictured myself as tall, thin, gaunt, with blond hair and always dressed in black from head to toe – looking a way I could never possibly look. But unfailingly this was how I imagined myself.

As I got older, I thought less about the future as a separate realm of possibility, or at least less like I realm where I would be dramatically different than who I was at the moment I was imagining it. The future contracts, or recedes into a certain level of abstraction that can’t contain anything solider than hopes and fears, which are two equivalent fuels for anxiety.

My sleeping/waking schedule, immediately canted under the hammerblow of the pandemic, continues to grow more and more eccentric, like someone living for decades in a house by themselves with only warped old phonograph records to listen to. Today I woke up at 11 o’clock. I probably won’t go to bed until after 2 am. 2 am is a blighted hour. It’s not as cursed as 3 am, it does retain a vestige of sanity, but like 3 am it’s an hour of demons and unfathomably strange thoughts, impulses and despairing fantasies.

2 am: and, insomniatic, you stare with dry eyes at whatever you have on the TV. The volume is too low to hear what anybody is saying, but it doesn’t matter: the moving images tether your thoughts so they can only drift so far and, like a dog leashed to a pole, eventually wear themselves out with running. Your blinks are dry, they burn. Time crawls like a penitent to some holy city. Each waking minute lived through like a feels like a transgression: furtive, shameful. You want desperately someone to talk to, some fellow criminal, another raccoon padding on soft gloved feet through these indecent hours on their own unimaginable errands. But maybe it’s better that you aren’t kept up, because your mind is in a tremulous state and would route an unnecessary amount of energy into a conversation; the sheer adrenaline of not being alone would probably propel you right through until the actual morning, where sleep would become a certainty and a kind of comfort, but also an embarrassment, like applying for bankruptcy.

Sometimes, even in daylit regular life, you think maybe that there is some force looking down on you, some column of light turning you into a beacon for – what? – to find, or to mark you out for other forces. But when you can’t sleep this column feels like a prison being turned over top of you, to suffocate you like a bug being trapped under a glass.

You have the lamp on on your nightstand, and like all artificial light it feels incorrect at this hour, blasphemous and absurd. You know you can’t sleep with it on, but you have this sensation of incomplete ritual, that certain steps have not been taken and, without completing them, sleep will elude you even with the light out. But the steps you feel you must take elude you even though you know what they are; you’re stuck on some shallow plane of your own mind, and everything deeper below is inaccessible.

You’re not under the covers. You’re worried that maybe the sheet and the blanket on top of it are misaligned, so that if you did sleep under the covers, you would feel around your feet or ankles the place where the sheet and the blanket don’t match up, and in the final darkness of thought that precedes a plunge into sleep, where, perversely, even though your sensory world is circumscribed only to the places your body touches in physical space, every sensation is intensely heightened, you’ll notice this discrepancy and be unable to sleep until you get out of bed and fix it: taking off the blanket, taking off the pillows, and spreading the sheet out, then the blanket on top of it, and then folding the top of both back back before putting the pillows into place again; by which time you’ve your mind is racing breathlessly through the sleepless labyrinth again from all the input.

So to stop this from happening you sleep on top of the covers. You’re bundled up in a hoodie and heavy socks that someone who used to love you made you, and your hands are tucked into the pockets of your pajama pants. Eventually, although nothing has been changed or remembered, it feels right to turn off the light. So you do, and you put a sleep timer on the TV because these days you find it hard to sleep in total darkness. You have the screen dimmed but still, when your eyes are closed you can the light through the membranous skin of your lids, and feel its weightless touch on your face like the sun on a hot day. You realized that your mind, under some compulsion, is raising all your perceptions to this heightened degree, as if it were separate from you and wanted to e cruel. You don’t realize you’re nearing sleep because you’re wondering instead (for the thousandth time) whether your mind will ever go back to its daylit normalcy again, even when the night is over.

And it’s at this point, just beyond despair and before your mind has registered any other sensation or thought, that you find the doorway into sleep, without even knowing it; the door is so small that you don’t feel your passing between insomnia and the addled, lead-heavy, burning-lidded sleep that follows it.

In the morning (11 am), this whole process will seem impossibly distant. You’re unliminal again, far removed from the impossible abstraction that you felt during the night.

But the next time you can’t sleep, when that hateful fucking black candle is lit up in your head again, you’ll remember this and every other time you couldn’t sleep, because the arcana of sleeplessness is part of our human heritage, as ancient as the reverence of flame.

5/10/20: Mother’s Day

Earlier today I took a drive, to pick up some food from a restaurant for Mother’s Day. It was the first time I drove somewhere other than the grocery store since the first half of March.

The restaurant was in Aurora, so I took 43 into town. At the big intersection of Frost and 43, a sign advertised construction ahead, and possible delays.

I was passing through the industrial park that separates Streetsboro from Aurora, where – how many? a dozen, twenty, thirty? – businesses mediate inconsequential purposes in low buildings, all differently ugly. On the left there’s a relatively new building, one of the biggest and most penitentiary-looking; before this was built, the bare acreage stood there for years, with a For Sale sign drowning in a sea of long grasses that were consistently dead from spring through fall year after year. During the winter, the snow fell on this field evenly and undisturbed, and the wind would move across it like an animal bolting from the distant treeline, and rattle your car back and forth on the cold dark road.

Passing here, my mind dropped out of the present into the buried archive of a thousand sensations or half-memories of other times I was in this same spot. And all these other instances were connected with each other not only by the location itself, but because they all took place in times not defined the COVID 19 modifier. I didn’t forget where I was and what was going on now, but I did feel, very cleanly and for just a minute, the sensation of that time – the true sensation, deeper and more visceral than only a remembrance.

And then I felt the obligatory hurt for old times, an acute perception of misjustice, a major desire to make this complication to go away. Like if I could unearth a grudge inside me big enough, like some massive grievous fossil, I could shift the world away from the ignominious terror of an impartial disease and let myself back into the problems of regular day-to-day life – which were overwhelming and crushing in their own ways, but at least allow you the nobility of being able to act upon them. There’s nothing more humiliating than a loss of agency, which is what all imponderables like sickness and death inflict upon us. How can anyone speak or think favorably about fate?

We feel robbed right now. Something has been taken, and we’re bereft. And this loss echoes of all the other ways in which we’re robbed, the ways we lose or are never given things we’re told from somewhere we deserve, or will always have.

(Now its raining outside, I can hear it in the high corners of the room like a ghost drifting around in the attic. The rain’s Soft Million Touch, the undine sound of its caress that makes me feel like the house is slowly sinking to the bottom of the sea.)

I went into the restaurant, a place called Erawan – a Thai place. A man in a mask was coming out of the door; he went to his car with a bag of food. He was the only person I saw wearing a mask while I was out: inside the other cars I passed, I saw only maskless people.

Inside, the restaurant was small and dark, with a bar lit up by a coiling purple LED strip light. In one corner, the chairs were up on the tables, and three or four toddlers sat beneath them in a sprawl of blocks and toys, babbling to one another or themselves.

The only other person was the hostess, a high school kid. She brought my food and politely sanitized her hands before taking my credit card for the order.

“How are you doing today?” she asked – or, I think she asked; anyway, that’s the question I answered when I said:

“I’m alright, how’re you?”

“I’m okay! Really tired,” she said.

“Oh yeah?” I said. I started thinking of follow-up questions but before I could ask any of them she said:

“Oh, and by the way: Happy Mother’s Day.” I’m not sure if it was the simple way she said it, or the funny fact that she was wishing me a happy Mother’s Day, or what, or a combination of the two, but I was weirdly touched by it.

“You too. What about you, are you gonna be able to spend some time with your family today?”

“Yeah well I get out of here by 8:30, so.”

“Oh nice, so you’ll have time then,” I said, trying to make the words sound bright.

She handed me my card back and pushed two receipts across the counter, both identical.

“Oh,” I said, “Uhh, which of these is for me?”

“Oh,” she said, “Either one. Sorry, I was just shoving them in front of you without any explanation.”

“Oh no, that’s okay,” I said, and then with an attempted comically dramatic air, “It’s just been so long since I’ve seen one of these things in the wild.”

“Right? This ancient relic.”

“Exactly, exactly.” Chuckling mildly, I signed one of the receipts and gave it to her, then picked up my bags of food.

“Thanks,” I said.

“Sure thing!” And then in one of those awkwardnesses that only happen in conversations with strangers she said, as if we hadn’t just been talking about them: “Do you want your receipt?”

“No, that’s alright, thanks again!”

“Thanks, have a good night!”

“You too, be well.”

And then I went back home.

5/9/20: On Anna Karenina

Trying to form some thoughts on Anna Karenina that can stand separate from the work itself. When I’m reading it, the thoughts I have are all immediate ones pertaining to the characters and to their situations. Mostly, I don’t think of the Tolstoy’s style or the book’s structure, or ironies or echoes or any other literary contrivances.

We’ll call Tolstoy’s prose “natural.” There’s an immediacy to it that overrides analytics, the same way people, usually in love or rage, can be temporarily imbued with an immediacy, so that we can’t think of anything else other than their nearness to us and what we’re doing with them. You can see through Tolstoy’s prose as through a window. Critics talk of ‘transparent prose,’ but usually when they say this they mean something other than the kind of transparency on display in Anna Karenina. In his introduction to Oakley Hall’s Warlock, Robert Stone talks about that novel’s sense of ‘lightness,’ in the sense of a bright clarity to its prose; and I think that’s closer to the mark to what it feels like to read Anna Karenina. Nothing intrudes between you and the people, places, things, pains being presented in exactly their natural light.

Or maybe that’s something else. Maybe there are two things going on in Anna Karenina; there’s the proximity of the prose, which puts the world being shown to you right in front of you. But there’s also this sense of clarity, a sensation that things are being shown to you exactly as they are. Whether one thing or two, they make Anna Karenina blissfully easy to read, but hard to pull any thoughts out of other than admiration and the confirmation that, yeah, I’m enjoying the hell out of it.

One thing that I do wonder about though is the difference between a character and a real person. Because unquestionably Tolstoy creates wonderfully-dimensioned characters, imbued with a sense of heaviness and reality. But are they real people?

I mean, a character can serve lots of functions in a story. But let’s say that in its primal application a character is an ancient tool writers use to depict a real person, bearing the same relationship to a real person that way that a paragraph bears to a thought or emotion.

But there’s sometimes it seems like there’s suspicious perfection to Tolstoy’s characters. I might be imagining it. Everything they say and do flows so even-keeled from the way in which they’re portrayed. It’s not that they’re not inconsistent; but that even their inconsistencies (for the most part) seem perfectly orchestrated and logical, perfect in their plausability.

I mean but I’m addicted ineluctably to doubt and, in the absence of doubt, the manufacture of synthetic doubts, indistinguishable from the real thing in taste and texture. So this suspicion may, in fact, be a figment.

But outside of the characters, as I approach the 2/3rd’s point in the book and things start to coalesce, it’s hard to overstate my appreciation for the subtlety with which Tolstoy depicts human relationships. Because really, that’s what Anna Karenina is about: relationships between husband and wife, between lovers, between brothers, between a person and their own mind.

Discussion of a book’s length is almost universally an asinine endeavor, but here you can see a direct corellation between Anna Karenina‘s length and the nuance that is achieved in its portrait of these relationships.

But most of that nuance comes from the novel’s awareness of the effect of time on a relationship. As we usher our connections forward through time with us, constant changes fall onto us and them, from every direction, and as ceaselessly and mysteriously as neutrinos. Connections, inevitably, change: someone we love in the fall can bore us by the spring, or maybe even we can just hate them for one night, inexplicably; dissatisfaction with ourselves enacts bitter alchemy and corrodes our respect for other people; questions of mortality and human limits can recontextualize how we approach other people, or the possibility and sustainability of anything approaching happiness…nothing is unfragile enough to be completely unaltered under this onslaught.

I also don’t know any novel so fixated on depicting marriage in particular. Really when I say depicting marriage, I mean depicting the sensation of any serious long-term relationship with another human being: the incredible burden and the quiet, but powerful, rewards that come with it for those who are able to see them,

These concepts in particular are deeply unhip, I know, and there are plenty of dumb elements to the sexual politics of 19th century Russia any reader will have to deal with; but that clear-eye appraisal of both relationship struggles and the rewards, without any attempt at poeticizing or abstracting them, is rare.

Anna Karenina is obviously a book written from a moral standpoint. And again, for as unsexy as that sounds on paper, I think that morality is an essential part of true art. The lameness of much ‘moral writing’ comes from the writer’s oversimplification of morality, not from the presence of morality itself. Morality isn’t choosing Good over Evil as if they were both on a ballot; really, it’s the formation, preservation, and embodiment of our true self (I guess I believe any true self is inherently moral), and the neverending war to assert that self in the external world.

If any of that is true, morals are the method of interchange between our real selves and external reality, because they’re both the purpose and direction of our actions. Or would be, or should be, maybe, but instead of sweeping up the world in who we are, we allow ourselves to be lost in its churn of intricacies and proliferating fractal sub-sub-clauses. We move substance the wrong direction, out to in instead of in to out; so that we’re filled with directionless impulses we didn’t make, and not really ourselves but a sad repository for inert artifice.

5/8/20: Wax Doll

“A man could not be prevented from making himself a big wax doll and kissing it.”

– Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy

Complexity is anathema to fantasy. One tragedy about the human brain is that, in all its luxuriant complexity, with its million invisible arms, there’s so often a fundamental weakness to what it creates to connect with other human beings; maybe it allows too much to originate from within, or maybe it allows too much to intrude from without. Either way, the ratio is off.

From about the usual age I started wanting to know about girls. And I formed this fantasy of a quiet, pretty, smart girl, my best friend, profound in understanding, always by my side, so close as to make the question of us becoming lovers – a concept I only thought of distantly at that time – besides the point, because it was assured on the level of a natural law; just like we know that a mustard seed sproutling won’t grow into a cedar.

This fantasy grew in me from two separate instances, two cultures from the outside world that replicated inside of me, growing into this third thing, my particular wax doll.

In the grocery store I used to see, but never ask to buy, the boxes of Kashi cereal. On the front of the box they always had two people, of different genders and ethnicities. One box had a picture of a young white boy with tawny hair in a shiny bowl cut. Next to him was an Asian girl, of about his own age. The lighting for the picture was rustic, beatific, autumnal; they were wearing wholesome whole grainy-type sweaters; I imagined that they were eating off a coffee table in a living room that was darkly wood-paneled.

When you look at a picture without context – without knowing who’s in it or when and where it was taken – what you’re actually looking at is almost always a liar, or at least enables a shallow, reflexive fiction-making process. Your mind begins to make a story out of it. Sometimes these stories pass from the foyer of your brain into its inner chambers; that’s what happened with me in this case.

And then, in school, the teacher read Bridge to Terabithia to us. The character of Leslie Burke finished the image of this partner I was imagining for myself.

Then I met a girl in school. She had short hair, like Leslie Burke, and maybe that was all it took for me to graft this persistent fantasy of mine onto her, and to convince myself that she was the person I sought. And when you overlay a fantasy onto a person, everything they do corroborates to whatever it is you are, fruitlessly, hoping they are.

Stupid and dogged with hunger for my created ideal, I tried to make friends with her, orchestrating ways to spend time with her and proceed, slowly it felt like (even though it was probably only a month’s worth of work), through the outer rings of social intimacy and into friendship.

One time she invited me to her house. This was when my parents were still living together, although the divorce was already in progress. We lived in a big house in Aurora, in a neighborhood called Woodview Estates. Woodview was one of the newer developments, full of big boxy houses that gestured in the direction of architectural style without actually embodying it, and were emblematic of what Aurora wanted, desperately, to become. My friend lived close by, in one of the older developments, full of small ranch-style houses nestled up against one another, that Aurora had to build its newer dreams like Woodview around.

Her house smelled like smoke, and stalely, because both her parents smoked inside of it. Her mom had short hair like she did, and a similarly toothy smile; and her dad was lounging in work jeans, and he had a gray-black mustache and a gray stubbled chin and cheeks. Her brother was a fat kid, like I was, and had the apple cheeks and high-pitched voice that lots of fat boys have.

Immediately, I slid comfortably enough into a standard social register around them all; but underneath I was disappointed. It had nothing to do with my surroundings: there was nothing wrong or gross or depressing about where she lived, and everyone was kind and welcoming and warm. I was disappointed because I recognized the permanent disparity between this living person and any raw fantasy from my skull – between it and any other being, in fact. There was a final otherness in everyone that separated them from everyone else, and the hopeless ideals were no ways to come to a reckoning with this enduring divide.

By high school we had drifted apart as friends. That’s when I met you, and you consumed my attention. But years later, when I was in college, in one of those unfollowable, sequences of events that bring a random person back from your past for a strange cameo role, I ended up going on a single date with this friend. I was back in Aurora for the weekend, and we went to the same movie theater we would’ve gone to if we had dated in middle or high school, the same theater that is open today (or was before the pandemic, anyway), with its galaxy-themed carpet and wall hangings, and the satisfying white flatness to its lobby lights, and gigantic parking lot anticipating crowds of a size it never achieves. She laid her head (still with short hair) on my shoulder during the movie, and we laced our fingers together.